Toronto Maple Leafs: A Blueprint to Filling out Toronto's Defensive Core

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Toronto Maple Leafs: A Blueprint to Filling out Toronto's Defensive Core
Jared Wickerham/Getty Images
The Maple Leafs must add some defensive support for captain Dion Phaneuf.

Heading into the 2013 offseason, the Toronto Maple Leafs really must be concentrated on upgrading their six-man defensive unit.

In the shortened 2013 regular season, the Leafs were in the bottom half of the league in goals against per game, as well as shots against per game.

Couple those stats with the fact that the team was dead last in giveaways (by a wide margin), and it's fairly easy to deduce that something needs to be done to help ameliorate Toronto's defensive woes.

Fortunately for Toronto, there is a feasible way of turning things around in front of netminder James Reimer.

Here are the steps the Leafs should take in order to improve their standing defensively in the NHL next season.

 

Let the Dead Weight Walk

As nice of a story as it was to see Mike Kostka rise out of nowhere during the lockout and earn himself a spot on the Leafs' opening night roster, he simply isn't a defenseman that would be part of a winning squad.

He isn't a big body, his puck-handling skills are nothing special, he has trouble with first passes in his own end, he's predictable when manning the point on a power play and he doesn't really have any kind of shot from the point.

All in all, Kostka doesn't really do anything well.

The other player that the Leafs must part ways with is Ryan O'Byrne.

While the 6'5" blueliner was alright as a third pairing defenseman for Toronto later on in the season, he's another player that is average at best and really doesn't belong on a team looking to contend.

O'Byrne's lack of mobility is easily exposed, and when playing against teams that have a plethora of talent up front, O'Byrne simply can't get the job done.

 

Re-Sign Your Restricted Free Agents

Abelimages/Getty Images
Cody Franson and Carl Gunnarsson are integral parts of Toronto's defensive core.

When it comes to Toronto's restricted free agents, the front office must look to ink them to multi-year contracts.

Cody Franson emerged as one of Toronto's better power play catalysts on defense, and is one of the team's best passing defensemen.

His defensive game could still use some refining, but Franson proved in 2013 that he is most definitely worthy of a spot on Toronto's blueline.

The same goes for Carl Gunnarsson.

The 26-year-old Swede may not be flashy, but he goes about his business in an admirable way.

With his best season points-per-game wise and in terms of player rating coming in 2013, Toronto should be anxious to re-sign one of their most reliable young defensemen.

 

Buyout John-Michael Liles

Although I've always been a fan of John-Michael Liles, the head injury he suffered during the 2011-12 season seems to have really hurt his game. 

Defensively, Liles has become somewhat of a liability, finding himself out of position quite often.

Do you think the Leafs should buyout John-Michael Liles?

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Offensively, his puck-moving skills don't seem to be as sharp, and over the course of the last two seasons, he's been somewhat prone to injuries (he was hurt in 2013 as well).

Many a night Liles found himself watching the Leafs play from the press box as a scratch as well.

At over $3.5 million per season, Liles just isn't worth the cost to the team anymore.

Buying him out and replacing him with youth from within and cheaper players from the free agent market is Toronto's best move at this point.

 

Trade for Phoenix Coyotes Defenseman Keith Yandle

Jeff Gross/Getty Images
Keith Yandle has emerged as a top-notch NHL defenseman.

One of the biggest rumors to emerge around the trade deadline a few months back was that the Phoenix Coyotes were open to trading top-tier defenseman Keith Yandle.

With the Coyotes needing some help offensively and in dire financial straits, Yandle is the ideal player to trade, considering the team inked youngster Oliver Ekman-Larsson to a long-term deal worth a significant amount of coin.

At this point, you'd have to consider the Buds one of the front-running teams if Yandle were to hit the market.

Toronto has the necessary cap space, a fair amount of offensive talent to offer in return, and could also package a few prospects.

With the Philadelphia Flyers having issues with the salary cap, and having recently agreed to terms with defenseman Mark Streit, the one-time frontrunner is probably out of the picture.

As for Yandle's impact in Toronto?

Well, he'd instantly become Toronto's best defensemen, and he would help alleviate a lot of the pressure that Dion Phaneuf must deal with on a nightly basis.

Playing him with Phaneuf would give Toronto a formidable top pairing, and playing him on the second pairing would allow Phaneuf to rest a bit more each game.

Either way, Yandle would provide an instant upgrade to Toronto's lagging defense.

 

Sign an Unrestricted Free Agent

Claus Andersen/Getty Images
Grant Clitsome could prove to be a steal of a signing for the Leafs.

Assuming the Leafs were to make all the moves listed above, they would still need to fill one spot among their top-six.

With Dion Phaneuf, Cody Franson, Jake Gardiner, Carl Gunnarsson and Keith Yandle forming the first five, who would be the ideal sixth candidate?

Taking a look at the market for free agent defensemen, there are a few names that jump out.

The first is veteran Andrew Ference, who has helped solidify a Boston Bruins defense that has helped lift them to two Stanley Cup Finals appearances in the last three years.

With Ference also likely to sign at a reasonable cost, he could fit in really well in Toronto.

The other name that pops out from the list of unrestricted free agents defensemen is Winnipeg Jets' blueliner Grant Clitsome.

At 28 years old, Clitsome would mesh well with this Leafs roster moving forward.

The Ottawa-area native had a fine season for the Jets this year, finishing with a respectable 16 points, nearly 19 minutes per game played, and a player rating of plus-10 on a team that had a minus-15 goal differential.

At a more-than-reasonable cap hit of $1.25 million (though he'll probably be looking for a raise), Clitsome would be a terrific under-the-radar pickup for the Maple Leafs.

 

Conclusion

To wrap things up, here is how I would have Toronto's starting six defensemen look in 2013-14.

The first pairing would consist of Dion Phaneuf and Keith Yandle.

Toronto's second unit would be composed of Carl Gunnarsson and Grant Clitsome, while the third pairing would be made up of young guns Cody Franson and Jake Gardiner.

While this would leave Toronto with five left-handed shooters on the backend, it would still provide a big boost to the team defensively.

 

How do you think the Leafs should go about building their defense for the 2013-14 season? Let me know in the comments section.


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